With ‘Barbarians at the Gate,’ Foundation picks up the pace [Apple TV+ review]

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Foundation review: Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) has the only key to the Vault, a powerful mystery on the edge of the galaxy.
Salvor Hardin (played by Leah Harvey) has the only key to the Vault, a powerful mystery on the edge of the galaxy.
Photo: Apple TV+

Foundation, Apple TV+’s big Isaac Asimov adaptation, wades into the murky waters of intergalactic politics this week. Brother Day hears of a potential rebellion, Salvor Hardin plays a pawn in a game of genocidal chess, and Hari Seldon’s words haunt all and sundry.

Can any side keep it together long enough to enact their decades-old agendas? Foundation, growing stronger by the minute, serves up more questions than answers.

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Foundation review: ‘Barbarians at the Gate’

In this week’s episode, titled “Barbarians at the Gate,” the newest Brother Day (played by Lee Pace) has become something of a wastrel. He’d rather cat around with royal geishas than attend to matters of state. When he hears that a new religious leader (T’Nia Miller) is trying to curry favor by resurrecting an old way of thinking, he gets murderously focused on stopping her.

The heretical belief in question, which predates the imperial cloning program that gave birth to Day, Dusk (Terrence Mann) and Dawn (Cassian Bilton), says that the souls of everyone in the galaxy are equal and that the rulers are no more special than anyone else. Dusk wants to stop her campaign in person before it’s too late, but Day won’t let him. He thinks this requires his personal attention.

Meanwhile, on Terminus …

On planet Terminus, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) has been kidnapped by scrappers from a planet called Anacreon. Salvor manages to steer their leader Phara (Kubbra Sait) near the vault, which makes her lightheaded and then unconscious. This gives Salvor enough time to alert the rest of the people on Terminus to put together a perimeter to protect them from the rest of Phara’s crew.

Salvor, blessed with uncommon deductive reasoning and something close to telepathy, has little trouble interrogating Phara. However, she can’t quite divine the reason that the Anacreons are here until Phara accidentally lets something slip. Salvor sees that Phara isn’t just some scavenger looking for scraps. She’s the head huntress from Anacreon, one of their most important people.

So why would they come to Terminus on the far reaches of the galaxy? Well, they want the attention of everyone on Trantor. All this commotion on Terminus piques Brother Day’s interest in the mathematical predictions of Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), the man who predicted the fall of the empire.

Day consults with a council of statisticians who’ve been checking Seldon’s math for the last several years. The only conclusion they came to was that it’s not impossible that Seldon was right. So, against protocol and the wishes of imperial android Demerzel (Laura Birn), Day sets out for Terminus. Will he get there in time to stop the colony from being destroyed by the rogue Anacreons?

Foundation moves along nicely

Foundation abandoned the form of its first two episodes almost completely and is now moving at a breakneck clip toward its next plot developments. This isn’t exactly unusual, but it does feel kind of out of the ordinary for a show like this, a kind of huge gamble from a big streaming network.

If we look at something like Amazon Prime’s The Expanse for instance, that sci-fi show took a long time to ensure that every chess piece is firmly in place before the blitz begins. We usually see four or five episodes of world-building and conflict explanation and then the action set pieces start in earnest.

Foundation, on the other hand, introduced a couple of extremely specific concepts in its opening volley of episodes. Now the sci-fi series is just barreling toward the end of its first season. The show is introducing new characters and obstacles, and gradually moving all these elements closer together for some kind of prolonged attack. It’s like any given episode of Star Trek but spread out over 10 episodes.

A fresh approach to epic sci-fi

Uncommon as this approach may be to a series’ arc, I have to say it’s working. Knowing what we know about the sort of cosmic balances being thrown off by the work of Hari Seldon means we know that every thing that happens on either Trantor or Terminus has grave consequences for the galaxy. But the show’s writers don’t lose sight of the fact that what we’re really paying attention to is the micro.

Salvor Hardin’s defense of the city is a small thing and it’s easily contextualized. We can get excited for the incoming assault by the Anacreons more so than we can the sort of titanic moving of tides for galactic politics and the ruling class.

It’s the same strategy that directors employ for historical war stories. You know that the units in The Guns of Navarone or Saving Private Ryan don’t really have any bearing on the outcome of the war, but you nevertheless are able to root for the outcome because you know whose side everyone’s on.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that I’ve very suddenly grown excited for the breathless pace of the show. The last two episodes have been very satisfyingly built and unobtrusively performed. It’s an open question what the cumulative effect of the series will be, but I’m much more excited to find out than I was when Foundation debuted.

Watch Foundation on Apple TV+

New episodes of Foundation arrive on Apple TV+ on Fridays.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.